Phnom Penh reflections: a city of surprises

Phnom Penh: City of Surprises

Regularly dismissed by travellers in search of superior Southeast Asian cities, Phnom Penh has a lot to offer those with the will to look a little deeper…


A morning stroll in the expat quarter twists and twirls through a maze of little streets, hidden from view on the edge of a roaring main road. Complete with neon signs, innumerable weaving motorcycles laden with goods for market, flies buzzing in the heat and puppies for sale in tiny roadside cages, the byway does little to fill the traveller, new to the city, with confidence.

Phnom Penh is a city of surprises. Written off by throngs of tourists and travellers as “crime and grime”, Cambodia’s capital, once known as “the Paris of the East, is often bypassed almost entirely, pencilled in only as a stop-gap on the journey from Siem Reap to Saigon. In reality, the city, a kaleidoscope of sounds and smells, is very much on the rise.

Unbeknownst to those who seek refuge in the glaring backpacker district, the streets frequented by the growing number of expats living in Cambodia’s capital retain a colonial charm and an easy-going feel.

Here, tiny independent cafés, prettily decorated, allow the weary traveller to forget the chaos of the city and sit amidst little yellow cushions and traditional decorative carvings, to order breakfast alongside locals pausing for a morning coffee and expats on their way to work.

Just next-door, quirky fair-trade fashion spills out onto cracked pavement slabs from enchanting little boutiques, as drivers lounge in tuk-tuks outside: this is one of the few places in Southeast Asia where to decline a drive is to make a friend. Refusing to ride elicits a smile and a handshake, before the offeror returns to the entertainment of their headphones.

Cambodia’s tragic and violent past, a world away in street-side shops and cafés, is nonetheless ever present. Across town lies the notorious Tuol Sleng, a high school-turned-prison, code-named S-21 by the Khmer Rouge, who murdered a quarter of the Cambodian population during their reign of terror, 1975-79. The school is now the country’s primary Genocide Museum: a reminder of the horror endured not so long ago.

Stepping into the S-21 compound, encircled by peeling white-washed walls, the air seems to thicken. Visitors lapse into silence, wandering into the near-empty ex-classrooms of the buildings lining the sides of the grassy square in the centre.

Rooms abandoned – save for rusted iron bedsteads – are today adorned with a single photograph on one blood-splattered wall, depicting the room as it was found by the liberators of Phnom Penh, complete with the tortured prisoner shackled to the foot of the bed, killed by the fleeing Khmer Rouge.

The walls of a second building are lined with photographs of victims: one showing them alive on arrival and another, beaten, dead, their suffering immortalised in muted shades of grey. It is difficult to stay very long: the atmosphere is oppressive, stifling.

Outside those stained, once-white walls life continues: locals live in flats overlooking the old high school, tuk-tuks weave around cars and brightly coloured motorbikes, and cafés serve imported iced teas, smoothies and soft drinks. Phnom Penh is surprising in that it is not wallowing in an almost unfathomably tragic recent past.

War crimes trials for the perpetrators – the killers at S-21, the nearby Choeung-Ek “Killing Fields”, and countless others scattered all across the country – continued into the twenty-first century: they have been few and far between. Victims and their children have had to go on living amongst the families of their captors, as Cambodia has struggled to rebuild itself: it is increasingly succeeding.

Screenings of independent films, caught on Meta House’s fan-cooled rooftop terrace, tackle gritty questions. A locally-shot film explores the extent of the younger generation’s comprehension of — or interest in — the nature of their parents’ experience of forced labour in the rice fields of the countryside. A returning refugee debates educational reform and opportunity with teachers, volunteers and visiting viewers. Travellers see the city with new eyes, reminded afresh of its complexities, its layers and its past.

For a city which stood entirely abandoned for almost four years, this Phnom Penh, where a new café springs up every week and novel building plans and foreign investment strategies appear in the newspapers almost daily, is a marvel. A flawed marvel, but a marvel of endurance all the same, as a young architecture graduate is quick to point out to his hotchpotch tour group, gesticulating wildly out over the city from the very top of Vann Molyvann’s 1960s White Building; now a crumbling, cracked blackish-grey. Like the rest of the city, battered and improvised upon, it still stands.

A visit to the vibrant Central Market, where one squeezes between stalls selling clothing of any and all descriptions, knock-off watches, sunglasses and telephones, an aisle away from fresh fruit and glassy-eyed fish, is evidence of Phnom Penh’s hustle and bustle. Vendors shout bargains at retreating customers, suppliers arrive in beaten-up vans laden with produce, and the traveller is swept up in the organised chaos of the everyday.

As late afternoon gives way to pink-and-purple evening, the riverfront along from the Royal Palace, lined with cafés and restaurants serving an eclectic mix of Asian dishes and the pizza found absolutely everywhere, comes to life.

The boardwalk is criss-crossed with local teenagers chatting and laughing, young families strolling in the fading light. Tiny children in oversized football jerseys dash from table to milling group to cluster of bar stools, clutching twisted coat-hangers looped with string bracelets, wheedling tourists into playing tic-tac-toe on scraps of paper: you lose, you buy. Somehow, they win every time.

Along the waterfront is the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a relic of a lost era. Here, before the chaos of the Khmer Rouge, news correspondents gathered, exchanging stories over a cold beer between writing, photographing, and, perhaps most of all, on 17th April 1975, the day Phnom Penh fell, witnessing history. Faded, now, and slightly worn, the FCC is lined with images of Cambodia’s recent history, including 55 sobering photographs taken by Al Rockoff on that fateful day: “Year Zero”.

In the bars dotting the embankment, couples perch with legs dangling from bar stools sipping cocktails, looking out over the Tonle Sap river as the light ebbs away. In the expat quarter, friendly hosts greet diners at family-owned restaurants, the market closes for the evening and the past seems a distant nightmare, though it is just streets away.

Today, there is life here again, and the sense of a place very much poised for something big. For now, as the young clutch their cigarettes in one hand, Phnom Penh fades into twinkling lights, music wafting on air cleared by recent rains which make rivers of the streets, and the ever-present whir of motorcycles engines.

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